PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said Tuesday he wants to shift $20 million of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief funding to housing and other priorities, arguing it’s a more effective way to spend the one-time infusion of cash.
The new mayor’s announcement follows a 10-month review of the original plan approved under his predecessor, Jorge Elorza, for using the city’s $166 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Any changes will need to be approved by the City Council.
“We have one opportunity to use this unprecedented funding, which is why I believe we should be using ARPA funding to make long-term investments that can improve critical infrastructure throughout our city,” Smiley said in a statement.
Under ARPA, enacted in 2021, Congress steered over $500 million to the largest cities in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts with relatively few strings attached. The same section of the law granted $1.1 billion to the state. The policy has been called the largest federal investment in cities since the Great Society in the 1960s.
Providence officials said about $81 million of the city’s ARPA money has already been spent, and under Smiley’s proposal the bulk of the original spending plan would stay the same, including $56 million allocated to plug budget holes and a much-discussed $10 million reparations program.
But a little over 10% of the money would be moved around.
The biggest shift by far would be a $10 million increase in ARPA funding for the Providence Redevelopment Agency’s Housing Trust Fund Program, which subsidizes the construction of affordable housing. The program’s total allocation would now be $27 million.
With colder weather arriving, Smiley also wants to budget an additional $2.8 million in ARPA funds for emergency homeless programs.
Other major new ARPA-funded investments under Smiley’s plan would include $3 million for India Point Park and $1 million for Merino Park and the Woonasquatucket River area. Another $1 million would go toward replacing the city’s aging fleet of parking meters.
The mayor also wants to earmark $1 million for the Cranston Street Armory, which aides said would be held in reserve as talks continue about having the city acquire the long-vacant facility from the state.
To pay for the new spending, 16 of the original ARPA allocations would be either trimmed or eliminated. Programs on the chopping block include $9.3 million for Kennedy Plaza, $1.4 million for a COVID-19 “adaptive reuse program” and $80,000 for one season of night basketball.
Another high-profile ARPA initiative under Elorza, a grant program for small businesses, never took off: just $851,000 of its $7 million budget has been used to date. The remaining $6.1 million is now being formally redirected to a Neighborhood Infrastructure Fund that the 15 city councilors will be able to administer in their individual wards.
Courtney Hawkins, the city’s chief policy officer, told reporters it “took a little while to get our arms around” what the Elorza administration had intended to do with some of the original ARPA allocations, as well as how much money had actually been spent to date.
Hawkins said Smiley’s team wanted to strike a balance between shifting money toward the own priorities while respecting that some of the original allocations were already being used or planned for.
“If we had been here at the beginning I’m not sure we would have done it that way, but now that it’s been allocated taking it back might also not be the right decision,” she said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Threads, Twitter and Facebook.